How The Breath Empowers Our Mind, Body & Movement Practice
Can you recall the last time you felt so overwhelmed that you could hardly breathe? Perhaps you felt a tightness in your chest, a rapid heart beat and lack of oxygen – as though you were stuck under water almost gasping for air trying to reach the surface. Perhaps you’ve identified these feelings with that of anxiety, irritability, intense worry or stress and felt that it was just normal to feel this way. But did you know that you can dramatically reduce these feelings by simply taking control of your breath?
In the midst of our frantic and busy modern lifestyles, one thing that many people, including myself at times, often take for granted and have little to no conscious awareness of, is our breath. Which is quite ironic, for without the ability to breathe, we would not be here today and certainly not getting through all the daily errands, friendly catch-ups and endless demands of our working life. There is no denying that the breath is essential to life, but what we often neglect to acknowledge is that the quality of our breath is paramount to how we experience and interact with the world around us. We spend much of our time analysing how squeaky clean our diets are and the effectiveness of our exercise routine, whilst managing our finances, kids leisurely activities and extensive to-do lists, yet very little time simply sitting in stillness and truly appreciating our breath.
We do ourselves a great disservice if we go about our day without awareness of our breath – for it really is our greatest tool; the breath governs the way our nervous system responds to outside stimulus and impacts our experience of different emotions, fears and the ability to thrive and perform under pressure. It is a driving force in the way we experience the present, for when we feel stressed our breath becomes more shallow and fast, which fuels our anxieties and adds to our stress levels. Our breath is a direct reflection of how we perceive the surrounding world – but we have the power to change this when we take the time to deepen and slow down our breath. “Conscious breathing stimulates the cerebral cortex of the brain and sends impulses from the cortex to the connecting parts that impact our emotions – which has a relaxing and balancing effect on the emotions.” We actively engage the parasympathetic nervous system and soothe our daily stressors; by breathing more efficiently we enable ourselves to not only monitor our emotional and nervous response, but we also help to harmonise the workings of our bodies internal systems and empower our body to better absorb oxygen, release carbon dioxide and create the necessary space to handle life’s complexities and challenges.
An effective breathing technique commonly used in yoga and meditation, that can also be transferred to most movement practices is the Ujjayi breath – the victorious breath. This breath builds and encourages the flow of life’s vital energy, increases self awareness and meditative qualities, relieves physical and emotional tension, strengthens our core musculature and cardiovascular endurance and can also be used as a focal point to centre the mind, relieving symptoms of anxiety and agitation.
1. Find somewhere quiet and do your best efforts to remove distractions such as your phone or internet. Take a deep inhale through the nose, feeling the ribcage, side waists and belly expand as you fill the lungs completely.
2. Exhale slowly through the nose as you place a slight constriction on the flow of air travelling from the lungs up the back of the throat and then out through the nose. If this concept is hard to grasp take an exhalation sighing out through the mouth creating an “Ahhh” sound. Now do the same thing but seal your lips and let the air travel out through the nose.
3. Aim to slow down and lengthen the breath, without forcing air in or out. Try to relax in the process and let it naturally build over time.
4. Centre your attention on the breath – watch it move in and out, visualise the breath travelling up the spine as you inhale and then back down to the pelvis as you breath out.
5. Continue this method for anywhere between 1-5 minutes or more. This breath can be practiced anywhere and at anytime and is extremely effective in assisting the nervous system to come back into harmony.
6. Integrate this breathing technique into your regular movement practice; whether it be dance, barre, yoga, ballet, walking or running. It will assist in conditioning and strengthening the core postural muscles as well as those involved in breathing.
The Magic Of Breath & Movement
Learning to breathe properly is a beautiful way to energise our movement practice. In many ancient traditions, such as martial arts, tai chi and yoga, there is an appreciation of a vital life force that moves through the subtle energy channels within the body. This life force permeates every living thing and is believed to be expressed in the body when conceived in the mothers womb. This life force is thought to be the essence of life itself, for when its flow is interrupted, stiffness, illness and disease is quick to enter the body – but when this energy remains in constant motion, it brings health and vitality to the mind, body and spirit. We can stimulate this flow of vital energy through the practice of conscious and concentrated breathing, and by combining this with our regular movement practice. In doing so we help to release stored emotional tension, physical strain and stagnant energy, that has become accumulated and blocked in one area of the body due to a growing need to be chained to our work desk and driving in cars for long periods of time.
All movement stems from the core postural and supporting muscles; every lengthening of a limb, complex movement and balance and transfer of weight as we move relies on the integrity of these muscles, namely the rectus abdominals, transverse abdominals, internal and external obliques, erector spinae, psoas and pelvic floor. They not only impact on our movement, but our ability to breathe – and breathe well. By regularly practising core exercises found in classes such as pilates and barre along with concentrated breathing techniques, and even by just consciously improving how we breathe, we help to condition and strengthen these muscles, along with those that directly support our breath, such as the diaphragm and intercostal muscles.
The Psoas: The Deepest Muscle of Our Core
The psoas is believed to be one of the most important muscle groups in the human body, as it is directly responsible for connecting the upper and lower torso to the legs. This muscle group is vital to stabilising the spine and maintaining physical posture when sitting and standing. The psoas muscle group allows us to move our hips and legs towards our chest and enables us to flex our torso forward when we need to bend over to pick up something up. The psoas also supports our internal organs and works like “hydraulic pumps enabling blood and lymph to move in and out of our cells.”
“There are two tendons for the diaphragm (called the crura) that extend down and connect to the spine alongside where the psoas muscles attach. One of the ligaments (the medial arcuate) wraps around the top of each psoas. Also, the diaphragm and the psoas muscles are connected through fascia that also connects the other hip muscles”. This connection of the psoas with the diaphragm creates a relationship between our ability to walk and breathe and plays a crucial role in our emotional wellbeing and nervous system response to emotions such as fear and excitement. When we become startled or under stress, our psoas contracts; and when we are experiencing ongoing stress, our psoas is constantly contracting and impacting our ability to handle day-to-day experiences.
Dr Christiane Northrup, M.D explains in one of her many online articles that “when our psoas is too short or tight, it can pull our pelvis into an anterior tilt, compressing the spine and pulling our back into hyperlordosis or “duck butt.” If our psoas is overstretched or weak, it can flatten the natural curve of our lumbar spine creating a “flat butt.” This misalignment is characterised by tight hamstrings pulling down on the sitting bones, which causes the sacrum to lose its natural curve and results in a flattened lumbar spine. This can lead to low-back injury, especially at the intervertebral discs. Thus we may also feel pain at the front of our hip. Finally, it is possible for our psoas muscles to be both tight and overstretched. In this case, our pelvis is pulled forward in front of our center of gravity, causing our back to curve (swayback) and our head to poke forward.”
We can bring balance back to our body and release the psoas by avoiding strenuous exercise routines such as excessive long distance running and walking. Try to mix up your workouts and incorporate a combination of dance, yoga, swimming or weight training. Move more frequently and avoid sitting down in chairs and long distance driving. When necessary, use a pillow or towel to elevate the sit bones and place a support at the lumbar spine to ensure your psoas stays released, hips are kept level and pressure is not being placed into the lower back.
And of course, don’t forget to breathe… The practice is simply this: keep coming back to your breath during the day. Just take a moment. This will give your mind a steadiness and your breath a gracefulness…. There’s so much to let go of, isn’t there? Your nostalgia and your regrets. Your fantasies and your fears. What you think you want instead of what is happening right now. Breathe.
~ Rodney Yee
Written by Erin Grant Stevenson for The Loft Dance & Yoga Studio